Q&A: The NYT’s Justin Gillis

The recent Oakes Award winner talks about how to keep climate on the front page

At the end of March, Columbia University awarded the 2011 Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism to New York Times reporter Justin Gillis for his ongoing multimedia series, Temperature Rising, examining the fundamental tenets of manmade climate change. Articles in the series, most of which appear on the front page, provide in-depth, back-to-basics assessments of global warming’s effects on glaciers, forests, food supply, weather, and more, and Gillis often follows up with more details on the Times’s Green Blog. Following his latest A1 story, about the strange run from hot to cold temperatures in recent weeks, CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked to Gillis about staying focused on a story that’s lost traction elsewhere in the media.

How did you become interested in climate change?

It was a direct consequence of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship I did during 2004-2005 academic year, where you take classes at MIT and Harvard. I was covering genetics and biotechnology for The Washington Post at the time, so I was thinking I was going to study biology and educate myself in the field I was covering. But when I got there, no one could talk about anything but climate and energy. So I started taking classes and the more I learned, the more I thought to myself, “This is the biggest problem we have—bigger than global poverty. Why am I not working on it?” From there, the question was, how do I get myself into a position to work on the problem? That ultimately led me to leave the Post and go to the Times because the Times is just better positioned cover the issue.

The Times launched Temperature Rising as climate coverage was in overall decline following the Climategate affair, the fruitless UN climate summit in Copenhagen, and the failure of climate legislation in the US. What inspired the paper to double down?

It was more or less a direct response to Climategate, which led to a lot of questions about the science. One was forced to read the e-mails and ask, “Do they suggest any sort of scientific misconduct?” As we studied them, it became clear to me that they didn’t, so we asked ourselves, “How do we respond in this situation when the evidence is all pointing in the same direction?” Points of contention exist within the science, as they should, but not about the basics of whether we have a problem. So, we asked ourselves, “What can we do to take readers back to square one, and can we better explain the underpinnings for this claim that we have a problem?” That’s when we decided to launch the series. The problem then and now is that it’s such a big topic that you’re really pushing the limits of what’s achievable within the frame of a newspaper story. But we decided to see if we could push those limits and give people climate change in bigger doses that might make more sense to them than the kind of incremental, he-said-she-said way the issue had traditionally been covered.

Has it worked?

It’s gotten a lot of reaction, certainly. Every single one of these stories has climbed pretty high, if not to the top of, the Times most-e-mailed list, which is an indicator of the level of public interest. They’ve also drawn scores—hundreds sometimes—of comments. The reactions are somewhat predictable. You have the diehard climate-change deniers who come out of the woodwork with every one of these stories, and sometimes we take bullets from people on the left who say that we’re not politically correct enough or that we should never quote skeptical scientists at all.

To me, the most interesting reaction has been from college professors writing in, saying, “We’ve never seen newspaper stories like this and we’re using them in our classes to teach students the basics of environmental science.” That’s been a gratifying reaction, and interesting to me. I think what it’s telling us is that there’s so little out there that’s accessible to people who don’t already understand the issue.

Along those lines, the recent installment on rising sea levels posing a threat to the coastal US caused a bit of consternation. One of the paragraphs begins by mentioning that “The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising.” The next paragraph introduces Myron Ebell, “a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute,” saying the country “could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.” It made Ebell seem like a scientific expert, rather than a policy expert, creating the type of confusion that bedevils public debate about this issue. What’s your response, and how important do you think it is for reporters to distinguish between science and policy experts when covering climate?

I suppose that in retrospect, given how much complaint there was, I wish I had made clear that Ebell is not a scientist, but an economist. I had quoted him many times before and know who he is, what he does, and what perspective he represents. So, to me, those were two stand-alone paragraphs containing different information. I didn’t describe Ebell as a scientist, and it’s a subtle point, but I suppose it would have been better to have a transition saying he’s an economist.

I do think this complaint is slightly disingenuous, though, and that it’s actually a proxy complaint for the larger claim that people make about false balance. We’re fairly often accused of employing it in our coverage of climate change. Even when, in the context of a 4,000-word story, I quote skeptics for three or four paragraphs and then drop them and move on, I can reliably count on some sort of attack from somebody saying I shouldn’t have done that. I think these people are just being a little—what’s the right word—ditzy.

If one is covering evolution these days, one can afford to ignore the anti-evolutionists most of the time because they are completely scientifically discredited and, more importantly, sort of spent as a social force. Unfortunately, we just are not at that point with climate science.

However discredited the scientific case questioning climate science may be, it is influencing half the Congress and a substantial fraction of the population. So this is almost like if you’d been in Tennessee in 1925 getting ready to cover the Scopes Monkey Trial. The anti-evolutionists were already scientifically discredited by then, but as a journalist, you could not have avoided quoting them in order to put the whole thing in its political context. I’m sad to say that in 2012, that’s still where we are with climate science.

There’s been a lot of debate about the extent to which media coverage does or does not influence public opinion about climate change and society’s willingness to address the problem. Do journalists matter in this regard?

Well, if I didn’t think it mattered, I wouldn’t be doing it, but how that social dialectic works over the long run, I don’t really know. I could point you to recent polls where it seems like, after bottoming out, the proportion of the public that understands that we have a problem is rising again. I have no idea whether that has anything to do with our coverage or anybody else’s, or if it’s a function of the recovering economy. I suspect the economy has a whole lot to do with how important people think this issue is at a given moment. Or does it have to do with all the crazy weather of recent years? Is it getting harder to look out the back door and deny that climate change is happening? That may be the case for some people at least.

All but one of the 12 stories on the Temperature Rising webpage made it onto A1. Is that a coincidence or do you conceive of these articles as front-page stories?

It’s sort of both. In some sense, I don’t really waste my time on something unless I’m reasonably confident I can get it onto page one. Then, it becomes a question of what’s the right framing to get it there and can I actually pull it off, and in the end, I don’t really control that. It goes up to a committee of people who are making these decisions. But the track record is pretty good here and I think that’s not just a function of the way I’m doing the stories. It is a sort of statement by The New York Times of the importance we attach to this issue. We’re telling you, in the way we play the stories, that we understand the need to improve public knowledge about climate change, and that we’re doing what we can.

Now, what we can do is limited. I think some people, like Joe Romm, would like us to send a bugler in a coat of mail around with the paper every morning playing taps and proclaiming that climate change is a problem. But there’s a limit to how much our readers can absorb of these long stories and we still have to cover all the other news as well. To me, it’s a remarkable thing that the paper’s devoting this sort of effort and this kind of play to climate change in an era when it would be easy to put our heads down and say, “Oh, that’s a long-term problem, we don’t have to deal with that right now.”

I was a little surprised that last week’s story about the EPA’s proposed limitations on carbon emissions from power plants was buried on page 13. If finalized, the rules would mean the beginning of the end for coal plants. Don’t they deserve more prominent coverage?

You might be overestimating the actual effect of that rule. In fact, the Obama people have been at pains this week to play down its effect. What the rule says is you’ve got to meet this standard, but any coal plant that’s already permitted or breaks ground within the next year is exempt. It also says, and this has kind of escaped people, that you can get a permit to build a coal plant as long as you convince the EPA that the plant will meet this CO2 standard over its 30-year lifespan.

That means that people would still be able to build them if they make provisions to bolt on carbon capture and storage or some technology like that ten or so years into the life of the plant, although I’m not sure how that’ll work in practice. The real reason to say the immediate impact of this is going to be fairly limited is that economics are already pulling the industry very hard in the direction of not building new coal plants and building new natural gas-fired plants instead. We have this sudden abundance of, and very low price for, natural gas from the hydro-fracking boom. So, in essence, the administration is not telling the industry to do anything it wasn’t already planning to do. On all of those grounds, I think you can argue for not treating that rule as colossal news necessarily.

Beyond the EPA’s proposed rules, there’s been little talk of climate change in Washington. Do you see any signs that it could regain traction?

The situation could be somewhat deceptive, as is often the case when trying to read politics. One way to read the counter-reaction and the politicization of the issue is that we have already come fairly close to action in the Congress. Remember, the House passed a major climate-change bill, which then died in the Senate as a consequence as much of opposition from Democrats from coal states as opposition from the Republicans. All the political noise may actually be an indicator that people sense there’s an underlying consensus to do something.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a tremendous inertia, so it’s very hard to know when that will happen. I can imagine some kind of action within the next year. I can also imagine it taking another ten years. But what I think people keep forgetting is that when you look at all the pieces together, the idea that the United States is not moving forward on this issue at all is wrong. Starting under Bush and continuing under Obama, we’ve put in place a fairly strong policy regarding efficiency of automobiles and trucks. If you remember, that had been frozen in place for 25 years essentially, and it has moved a long, long way in just the last few years. There is also the limit on carbon emissions from power plants that is coming into effect, assuming the administration can manage to defend it. Half the states now have mandates of one kind or another promoting renewable energy.

To me, it seems pretty clear which way the current is flowing, with the caveat that it’s important to bear in mind that the hour is late here. To head off the worst consequences of global warming, we needed to get started 20 years ago and we did not. So this will now be a pretty heavy lift to get to very low emissions by 2050. If we started today it would be hard, and we’re not starting today.

What’s next for the Temperature Rising series and where do the media, writ large, need to go next with the climate-change story?

I’m reluctant to give away my story ideas, but some of the questions are obvious. What is happening now and what is going to happen with plant and animal life on this planet as climate change proceeds? I haven’t done any real big take on that. There’s the obvious question of whether the change is going to be slow and incremental or abrupt, and are there any monsters hiding in the closet in that sense. That’s just a couple examples of possible targets that we have not really settled on. I tend to do stories one at a time and then say, “Okay, that’s in the paper, what’s next?” It’s not quite as mapped out of an agenda as you might imagine, but there’s a working list of ideas.

One thing I’m seeing—and I see it in our own paper as well as many other news outlets—is that people are covering the crazy weather we’re having and, more often than not, dodging the subject of whether there’s any relationship to climate change. TV weathermen are dodging that subject. Print reporters are dodging the subject. And it’s not so easy to cover because science does not have particularly good answers for us. The concept that I wrote about last week—that we’re in the middle of a sort of weather “weirding”—isn’t really a scientific concept for which you can build a weird index and figure out where we are on that index, but there are some things that scientists can say about weather extremes. Some of the extremes are very consistent with what is expected and what has long been predicted, and we’re seeing very clear trends in certain extremes like heat waves and heavy precipitation events. Reporters are not going to be able to be definitive, in real time, about whether this particular event was or wasn’t connected to climate change, but it’s a bit of a scandal that there’s not enough connecting the dots for people.

More broadly, I would say that if you look at the peak in climate coverage around the time of the Copenhagen summit and where it is now, it’s really dropped off the media radar screen, and it needs to move back on given it’s importance. Copenhagen may have been a disappointment, but the issue hasn’t gone away.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,